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In the Trenches

NFL Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene dreams of another Super Bowl ring, but this time with the Miami Dolphins.
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 4)

Noll is not reluctant to talk about Greene's value. Praising No. 75 for his countless goal-line tackles during those championship years, Noll says of Greene, "I never ran into anyone who wanted to play more, and be better, than Joe did."

Game-saving plays in the final minutes still enthrall Greene. "That's when a question mark hangs over you, the thrill of the unknown," says Greene, who would "shade" the center--lining up at sharp angles between the guard and center-- to disrupt opposing teams. "Backed up on the goal line, the sense of success or failure is right there. You don't know if you'll fall off the edge or stay on it. [Sometimes] you fall off. But that's how you get to be good, by relentlessly testing the limits."

Greene was admittedly less the assassin and more the wily coyote once he sustained his first serious injuries--to his neck and back--in 1975. Unable to cover all areas of the field, he was compelled to play more conservatively. "After I got hurt, I just couldn't flow into someone else's spot," he says. "I was limited physically, so I had to become a wiser player. I didn't do things to get myself into trouble. That gave me my worth."

The adjustment allowed Greene to extend his string of Pro Bowl selections to eight seasons, and he earned two more nods in 1978 and 1979. But no longer able to single-handedly dominate defensive schemes and disgusted with rule changes that limited defenders ("Forget the dirty stuff. Now if you just hit someone hard you get fined $25,000."), Greene retired in 1981.

He stumbled around awhile, briefly working as a CBS announcer, opening a Tex-Mex restaurant in Dallas, and starting a firm that distributes frozen fruit bars.

Struggling in the business world and daydreaming about the game in his Froz Fruit office, Greene eagerly accepted Chuck Noll's offer in 1987 to become the Steelers' defensive line coach. Now becoming a "storyteller," illustrating different defensive tactics with references to Pittsburgh's glory days, Greene created one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL (in 1990, the Steelers led the league in total defense and pass defense). And he began smoking cigars.

"When I came back to the Steelers, Mr. Rooney would always say 'Joe, come on, join me, have a cigar,'" Greene recalls affectionately. "I'd put them in my drawer or give them to the Steelers trainer. I didn't know what they were, what brands, nothing. But I finally smoked one, and it was pretty good, so I started to smoke those things."

Predictably, few members of the Steelers family ever chided Greene for smoking during his five-year coaching stint. "The boss smoked, and besides, I'm too big for anyone to mess with me."

Yet Greene was more than sheer brawn. The "thinking man's defender," able to adapt to sophisticated offenses in the late 1970s, he consistently found new ways to stifle an attack, no matter what master strategist was charging into his territory.

"Coach Noll taught me my craft; that's why I'm a coach today. But he did like to talk, a lot. If I was busy, or wanted to avoid him for some reason, I learned what to do. I'd light a cigar. Never saying a word, he'd smell that Hoyo de Monterrey and just keep on walking."

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